How cross-country skiing saved me during the Pandemic winter

January can be dark and rainy in Portland, gloomy feeling even in the best of times. While I had tried to stay positive through most of the pandemic, just driving the bus and trying not to think too hard about anything but getting through the day, everything was getting to me. Like everyone else, I missed going out to eat, seeing family and friends, and I missed seeing stranger’s unmasked faces in the rearview mirror on the bus.

I knew things weren’t getting better, not anytime soon, and with nothing better to do, my sister-in-law talked us into cross-country skiing one day. I was skeptical, cross-country skiing at my high school growing up had been for all the skinny runner types trying to stay in shape during winter until track season in the spring, or for people who’s last names ended in -lund, -sen, -son, or -nen. It wasn’t for working class American mutts with a good case of bus driver bod. However I relented, because honestly, what else is there to do these days?

We rented skis and headed up to the mountains, parking at Teacup Lake. I put the boots on, clicked into the skis, and with nothing more than a couple of Youtube videos under my belt, and some questionable guidance from my sister-in-law of stuff she thinks she remembers from High School, we shuffled down the trail.

This was my first experience cross-country skiing but not my first experience on skis. About 18 years ago, I learned how to downhill ski in the Alto Adige region of Italy when I was an exchange student in Germany. The first day on the slopes, my host family helped me rent skis, set me up with a lesson to start later that morning, and left me at the bunny hill while they took off up the mountain on the lift. I tried going down the hill, or even just moving, and I kept falling, over and over again, until I was in tears while little Italian children giggled and laughed as they whizzed by me. I thought skiing was the dumbest thing ever and wished I could just hang out inside next to a fire place eating strudel or schnitzel and singing the Sound of Music.

Luckily, I had my first lesson, which improved my non-existent skills. Then I was put in a group of middle aged Italians learning to ski or relearning to ski after a few decades. The lessons were in Italian mostly, and I couldn’t speak Italian, which meant I grasped a lot of what was going on around me. At first, I was the slowest, and continued to fall a lot. However, by the end of the week, I was zooming down the Dolomites, and earned second place in a race against all the others taking lessons that week. My classmates nicknamed me “bombardino,” which I hoped had something to do with my speed and fearlessness and nothing to do with the war. I was trying not to offend anyone.

However that one week of downhill skiing in Italian was the extent of my skiing experience up until this year, because I’ve mostly been broke since then and skiing is expensive. In my mind, skiing was just one of those nice things that Europeans get like universal healthcare, free college, or highspeed rail that were awesome but were too good for us lowly Americans. Remembering my first day downhill skiing, I set my expectations low when I clicked into the cross-country skis for the first time, worried I’d again spend most of the day falling down while Italian children laughed and pointed at me. This time, for some reason though, it all just clicked right away. I started going up the trail, remembered how to do a pizza wedge to stop, and waited for everyone else to catch up.

Pretty soon I was whizzing down the trail, which for our first time was actually pretty icy and kind of crappy for skiing, but I was oblivious. I giggled and laughed as I went down the hill on the “easy” loop at Teacup. When the uphill started, I just strutted forward, trying not to fall over. By the time we finished the loop, I knew this was what I wanted to do all winter long.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world decided they wanted to cross country ski because of the pandemic too. The person at the shop said they would love to sell us some skis, but they didn’t have any, but actually wait, she said, I think I might have something. She returned with an ancient pair of skis probably made during the first Bush administration. They had brand new bindings on them, but the skis were beat up pretty badly, however serviceable enough to get me through the season. I bought them and a brand new pair of poles, but no boots, because they were out of any in my size.

Luckily, we found a used pair in my size on Facebook Marketplace that had the right kind of bindings (I had no idea how many different types of bindings there were, I mean all those countries that are into cross-country skiing are small, how many companies could there be!). After visits to another three stores, because everybody is skiing this year, my wife got skis for herself. We were all set.

After I purchased the skis, I was worried I wouldn’t use them all that much, that it would be another awesome purchase of mine, like the wetsuit I haven’t worn in seven years (you’re welcome world, I know you don’t want to see a beached bus driver) or the pile of blank notebooks I have because one of them is going to be the one that I write the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL in. Instead I found myself skiing two or three times a week. I skied on my weekends. I skied before work. I daydreamed about skiing at work. I read weather and road reports constantly, to see if there was new snow. I used vacation days to go skiing. I talked my bus fan friends to go with me, I will teach you I said, and we road the bus up to Teacup together. When snow hit Portland, we skied out our front door and through the city three days in a row, up and down Alameda Ridge. I was addicted, even if I was still figuring out what kind of wax was what and how should I use it or if I should use it.

While my wife was still falling down a lot as she figured out how to brake, I started going on the harder trails at Teacup. The downhills got my adrenaline going and the uphills worked my muscles, made me sweat, but I just strutted along. Nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to be having so much fun, because apparently it is among the hardest sports in the world or is a “brutally sustained nonthrill” according to some. I, on the other hand, was gleefully in love with the sport, going so far as to spend my one week of vacation cross-country skiing every day at a few different places around the state.

After skiing for a couple of weeks, my wife stopped falling and started having fun. She remarked on how I was getting more muscles. And then I noticed, despite reveling in a sport that is mostly beloved by Norwegian grandfathers, that it was making me look hot. After a day of skiing, I had that glow about me, ruddy cheeked, muscled. I looked at myself in the mirror, and thought damn I haven’t looked this hot in a decade. Pretty soon middle aged men were complementing my tights, because of course I needed tights to ski. THEY FEEL LIKE YOU ARE WEARING NOTHING AT ALL. NOTHING AT ALL.

But it wasn’t the muscles, or my improving fitness, or the thrills from going down hills on a pair of ancient skinny skis that made me love cross-country skiing, there was something else I loved about it. Honestly, I was as surprised as anyone about how much I loved it, considering I will often drag my feet before going on a hike or refused to do a half marathon for years with my wife, because why would I “pay perfectly good money to run a distance I could run for free except I don’t want to run that far because that sounds like a miserable way to spend an afternoon.”

I realized one day what that something else was. I was out at Teacup by myself, trudging along on the Elkhorn Trail, when I started looping through something in my head that had happened to me the day before at work, you know one of those stupid things that mean nothing but of course you think about and get upset over even though it means absolutely nothing. I then caught a slick part (what slick part, you’re asking, isn’t the snow inherently slick you idiot) and came tumbling on my ass. And that’s when I realized why I really loved cross country skiing. It requires you to be completely present in the moment. Unlike running, where I need to think about something else besides how much my lungs hurt to keep going, with skiing I have to think only about what I am doing at that moment. Cross-country skiing is just difficult enough that it requires your full concentration, one idle second of thinking about something else and you could be face down in the snow. You can think only about the task at hand. With skiing, there is no past to regret, and no future to plan for because it’s just your monotonous trudge through the snow. Small wonder cross-country skiing became my happy spot, a place where I couldn’t worry, during a pandemic time when there is so much to worry about.

There is also another reason. Cross-country skiing made me a little like a kid again. It made winter fun. Instead of just being a damp, gloomy time to suffer through and fatten up until spring, suddenly it was amazing like it used to be. When I lived in New England as a kid, I loved winter. I would look forward to snow days, not just because I wouldn’t have to deal with Mrs. Nickerson, but because it meant my brother and I and all the neighborhood kids would spend all day sledding down our neighbor’s hill. My brother and I, inspired the 1993 classic Cool Runnings and the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, built banks and jumps on the hill in our backyard so we could have our own bobsled course. We built snow forts, had snowball fights, and stayed outside until we couldn’t feel our faces anymore. Cross-country skiing brought back that glee, making gliding through an austere, whitewashed forest joyful. It made me feel like I was getting away with something. Everything else in the country could be falling apart, but I could just ski and ski and everything would be fine.

As the season has gone on, I’ve got more confident on skis, hills that used to scare me I’m now pushing myself to go even faster down. I whip up a hill and think wow, I got to the top pretty quick this time. However the amazing thing is every time I think I’m getting pretty fast, that I know what I’m doing, I fall because I’m thinking of something else instead of being just present in the woods and enjoying the glide. And some blond septuagenarian great-grandmother whose last name ends in -sen or -son, flies by on skies at a pace I was nowhere near to achieving, and I think, dang, I’m so glad I found skiing to get me through this winter.

Now instead of dreading the rest of the gloomy weather until July when the rains finally end, I’m actually sad spring is here and pretty soon, there won’t be enough snow to ski on. I’m a little sad I went this far into my life without knowing how awesome cross-country skiing is, but at least I have something to look forward to next winter. Even if I never strap on skis again (highly unlikely, I’ve spent the past two nights researching roller skis because the thought of waiting until next winter to ski sounds sad) I’m happy it let me slide through this most miserable winter. I just don’t know what I’m going to do next winter when hopefully there are other things to do, and people might expect to see me, instead of me just being able to hang out in the snow all day.

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Don Iler

Don Iler

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I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.